As an icebreaker at a dinner of 15 marketing executives in San Francisco last fall, each attendee offered a personal tidbit no one at the table knew. One of the first to go revealed a career that began not in marketing but engineering.
While marketers and engineers have traditionally had trouble understanding each other, this person, as it turns out, was not alone. Half of those in attendance admitted to being trained engineers.
"We were all initially surprised to learn that so many of us had engineering backgrounds," said Salesforce CMO Lynn Vojvodich, who hosted the dinner and was among those who spent time as an engineer. "But as we started talking more about it, it made sense. Many of the skills we learned as engineers translated well into marketing."
The engineer-turned-marketer has become less unusual in recent years, especially among b-to-b brands, and their stock is rising. As marketing organizations have beefed up their data capabilities to more precisely target and message, big names like Salesforce and Emerson have turned to former engineers to help drive that effort. And consumer brands such as JetBlue and Kohl's employ senior marketers with engineering backgrounds, suggesting the trend is moving across the spectrum.
"Marketing is becoming almost like an IT organization these days," said Jane Lansing, VP-marketing at Emerson Process Management, an $8.6 billion b-to-b business. Her degree in civil engineering from the University of Minnesota and technical training has been an asset in her current role.
Best of both worlds
"To do your job you have to be able to communicate not just with the design department at an ad agency and your PR guys," she said, "but you've got to be able to communicate with the IT organization, with your enterprise organization who is implementing your [customer-relationship-management system]."
For CMOs like Ms. Lansing, the job is about more than crafting a message, but selecting the right technology, overseeing its implementation and turning the dials just right so the messaging leads to sales. It's work well-suited for a trained engineer. "What you're going to find is the people that are running marketing departments are going to be far more technical and are going to have the best of both worlds," said Ms. Lansing. "They're going to have that technical understanding, and they're going to marry it with that insight and creative that the marketing side brings."
Marketers with just the creative skills will have a harder time making it to the top, said Ms. Lansing. "The technical side is way too important," she said.
JetBlue's senior VP-marketing and commercial strategy, Marty St. George, said his engineering degree from MIT is paying off as well. "Today, in the world of big data and trying to find a way to turn this incredible volume of noise into insights and actions, I definitely find myself falling back on some of the engineering tricks," he said. "When an issue comes up, my first thought is: How much data can I gather to try to triangulate around what's happening? I think that's definitely consistent with an engineering mentality."
The rise of programmatic buying and real-time bidding brings another technical aspect to marketing. "We were sitting with our agency three or four months ago looking at a media plan and I was thinking back to what my media plans looked like 20 years ago," Mr. St. George said. "I was doing kindergarten stuff compared to what we're looking at today."
Michael Allen, senior managing director of executive search firm Allen & Associates, said marketing's increased prominence within organizations has also created demand for engineering skills. "We had clients that years ago looked at marketing as a support function. That's changed," he said. Marketing executives with engineering backgrounds particularly have a leg up, he said. Trained engineers tend to understand product development, line extensions, supply chain and operations -- key competencies for the roles he's trying to fill.
Mr. St. George and his family "spent a lot of money to try to get me a degree and there were certainly times where I thought to myself, 'Boy, I wish I just got a business degree,'" he said. Not so anymore: "In the last few years, as data has become so much more important, I'm getting a newfound appreciation for it."